Ottessa Moshfegh’s Lapvona Is Absolutely Not Set in a Post-Trump Era, and That’s the Point
by Bleah B. Patterson
Lapvona sets us right in the heart of a medieval town that absolutely could have existed, tucked away in a valley with an almost comically evil lord on a hill just above who is influenced by a transparently fraudulent clergy member with predictably selfish intentions. Over the course of a year, we are introduced to a large cast of characters, each more pathetic and more venomous than the last. While it might be easy to see this book, written during the height of the COVID pandemic, and assign it as an allegorical tale about Trump’s America, the point seems to be that it’s not. Well, not just. Its ambiguous setting, its far far away place in time, and its ultimately wide-open ending give Lapvona a sense of inevitable repetition. What this grotesque fairytale shows us is that—whether we are reflecting on the death of a monarch with nearly a century of colonization as their legacy, a tyrannical president begging to be impeached but escaping it narrowly every time, the king’s head on a platter at the end of the French Revolution, the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire, or homo sapiens clubbing the last Neanderthals – this is the way the world has always been and will likely always be.
The novel, spanning the course of a year, is divided into seasons: the first season we’re introduced to is spring and, coincidentally, spring is the last season we will see. We are led quickly to believe that Marek is our hero because how could a mangled, earnest, pious boy who cries at the pain of a convicted bandit awaiting death in the town square be anything but our hero? He has to be the good guy, we think to ourselves; he is after all only a child. By the end of the season, we come to realize that Marek, along with our ever-growing cast, is rarely “good” and will be “bad” whenever given the opportunity. The climax of the story lies somewhere between spring and summer for Marek, but between summer and fall for nearly everyone else, and this feels important. Marek has spent the first act of the novel expressing bigoted internal dialogue, hatred towards people he deems immoral, a penchant for manipulation, and ultimately commits murder on a whim just because he wanted to see what will happen. We think for a moment that perhaps Marek’s bad behavior is a result of upbringing and environment, that maybe if these factors change, he will evolve and grow too. Instead, we are met with the horrifying and often visceral realization that when given better circumstances, bad people tend to just become worse, and in fact nothing in Lapvona is as pretty or idyllic as alluded to. Everything has a nasty and malevolent underbelly. Everything comes at a cost, and the cost is often passed off to someone much less fortunate but even more despicable. By the end of the novel, we are left feeling disgusted, confused, revolted, and wondering if there is any hope at all. The tone of the narrator implies not.
At first crack, Lapvona covers a lot of bases: wealth disparity, government hypocrisy, failings of organized religion, child abuse, sexual assault, abortion, class divisions, and the mistreatment of women, disabled people, and outsiders. “Civilized” society has always been just like Lapvona, and we don’t need Moshfegh to spell it out by name-dropping Donald Trump or Joel Osteen or Harvey Weinstein, the price of insulin, the overturning of Roe, or fracking for us to see exactly that Lapvona has and always will exist both in an unknown medieval landscape and in mainstream society today. The book is a critical look at a society's continued attempts to appear civilized without doing the necessary inner work—to hold officials accountable on a grand level, to vote in the interest of others not just ourselves, etc.
From the top of the hill, Lapvona may seem flourishing, successful, even stable. But in the valley that validates the very existence of the mansion on the hill, things are quick to crumble under the weight of a thousand-year-old religion and an imbecile-turned-tyrant leader’s self-interest. The beauty in the novel is that Moshfegh does this with an inevitability, a cynical wit, a clear and decisive kind of view on “the way things are” in fable, parody, and warning signs all wrapped into one.